The rebellious Jew
and fine 'talkies'
It was a surprise for me when one of the CDs dropped out from an unkempt shelf as I was hurrying in rearranging my movie library and guess what -it happened to be the good old classic - The Jazz Singer (1927)!
The impactful movie that I revisited belongs to the 'musicals' genre and is obviously, in black and white. First, its historical significance - the movie was the first to have lip synchronization for songs in an otherwise silent movie. This was the beginning of "Talkies" and a new era for movie making.
Jackie Rabinowitz is a rebel Jewish boy while his family is the archetypal Jew family. He has a good voice and wants be a jazz singer, something his father, a cantor, dislikes. The traditional father wants him to be a cantor at local synagogue and punishes the boy when he catches him singing at a local club bar.
Jackie runs away from family and becomes Jack Robin, a successful jazz singer. He develops a unique charm and people enjoy his style. His career takes a big leap when he meets beautiful musical theatre dancer Mary Dale. While his mother is proud of his achievements, his father, the cantor, disowns him as his son. Jack is, thus, torn between his professional demands and his love for his family. As this is a silent film other than its songs, the various expressive symbols and body language have played a great part in carrying the story forward and in quite an interesting way. It does keep one glued to the screen!
The film carries a social and historical message too. As jazz has a black American origin, the director has used blackface symbol to maximum effect. Jack, a white Jew, performs with a black skull cap, black dress and wears black face mask to maximum effects. Blackface becomes central to this film and most of its emotional drama happens with it and it has a lingering effect on audience.
The demands and pressures of careers and family has been depicted in a very emotional way and seen retrospectively, nothing has changed in human life except the degree of demands and pressures of life. All this is shown in a masterly manner without a single word and director's control over the story becomes obvious. The scene to watch is when Jack decides to sing for his dying father even when there is a looming threat to his career.
And there is a socio-political aspect as well. The film tries to depict a changing American Jewish society, where the newer generation is trying to move away from a typical Jewish lifestyle and the urge to assimilate is symbolized by blackface.
The songs are classics especially the "toot, toot toosie" and "Mammy” and are a pleasure to ears even today. Al Jolson as Jackie (Jack Robin) has performed outstandingly as an ambitious yet easy going jazz singer. The body language is powerful and he looks highly likeable. May McAvoy as dancer Mary Dale looks beautiful but there is not much for her to do. Eugenie as Jack's mother has given an emotional performance while Otto Lederer outshines as a funny, smart yet supportive old man.
The film was produced by Warner Brothers and released in late 1927 and has a running time of 90 minutes and it turned out a huge commercial success.